I don’t know why I’m here.
Before I left home, I told myself it was because I didn’t want to listen to my mom’s grating voice anymore while she yelled on the phone. On the SkyTrain, I convinced myself that my soul aches, that after years of searching and countless failed attempts at dating, this is the final place where I have to be able to find the cure to my hurt—a fellow soul to connect and relate with. And as I walked over, I admitted that I might just be horny and wanting to fool around with other guys, something I didn’t get a chance to do when I visited with a friend last week. What I do know, as I stand before the grand, weathered wooden doors, ones that look like a gate to another realm, is that it’s probably a bad idea to enter—but it feels too late to turn back. It could be that I’ve come all this way and don’t want to leave for nothing, but the doors somehow suck me in, as if I’ve strayed too close to its gravitational field and now I’m falling in, crashing. I should go, I think as I grasp the handle and pull the door open, yet I can’t.
Inside the dimly lit lobby is a window with a space between it and the counter below to pass money and cards through; it reminds me of a movie theatre’s box office. I make out the muffled bass beats of a thumping dance track beyond the metal door next to the window, beckoning me to cross the threshold. It sounds vacuous, void of feeling, and I don’t understand why they play music like that here. Then again, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have good music like Sarah McLachlan or Debussy blaring on the speakers overhead while sucking off a stranger.
“Could I just get a locker, please?” I ask the guy standing behind the spotless glass. He has dark stubble and wears a friendly smile, his hair neatly combed and slick with gel. The patches on his pressed grey uniform make him look like an auto mechanic. One stitched on the left of his shirt reads “Freddy.”
“Sure. Do you have a membership?”
Clumsily, I retrieve the student membership card I signed up for last week. Freddy punches in the info and charges me the fee for the locker. Behind me, the doors open and traffic noise spills in. I don’t turn around to see who it is; I’m too afraid to meet their eyes, for them to see me as I see them—yet another sleazy gay guy looking for an anonymous fuck. I know that’s not me.
“Come on in.” There’s a buzz and a mechanical switch as the door unlocks. I funnel through to the other side as if on a river. Three older men, two completely naked and one with a towel, swivel their three heads at me simultaneously and stare. I look away. Many younger Asian guys are into older white men, but that was never the case for me. Combined with years of being fetishized and objectified by older, bigger, white men, they make me feel like prey in their eyes, in their big, groping hands. About to be devoured whole.
“Your locker number is 434,” Freddy informs me, placing a key on a folded, dryer-warm towel on the counter. In Chinese culture, the number four is a bad-luck number: a homophone for death. I try not to think about how my mom would immediately demand another locker—or her disgust if she saw me here at all.
In the locker area, I strip and cover myself with the towel like everyone else. Glasses on or off? I debate with myself. People seem to think glasses are unattractive (God knows a lot of the gay men I’ve met are some of the shallowest people I’ve ever come across), but I decide to leave them on. I know how gloomy it is around.
Okay, well, I’m here. But I can still have a good night. I have the power to do that, to say no if I need to. We’ll just take it easy, relax a bit, and see where things go. Let’s start with the steam room. Pep talk over, after locking up my clothes, I tread on the wet brown tiles of the shower area, where a few men are bathing comfortably as if they shower next to other nude men all the time. A burst of hot vapour hits me when I open the steam-room door.
It’s quiet. Although the steam effectively renders my glasses useless, I make out the outlines of others nearby. They look like ghosts; the steam makes them seem translucent. I sit down and fill my lungs with condensation and imagine what it would be like if the steam weren’t there, if it were just a room full of men sitting around half-clothed in silence.
No one touches each other. No one says anything. We sit there, waiting for something to happen, praying the next guy coming in brings some action with him. But nothing happens. Which is fine for me because I’m satisfied just relaxing and sweating in the steam. This night might not be so bad after all.
After a little while, I need to breathe, so I take a quick shower and decide to go for a stroll around the main floor. Across the showers are steps leading up to a bubbling hot tub, where the heads and shoulders of three people float above the water motionless. In the faded light, the water appears dirty, tinged brown. Just outside one of the two doors to the joined shower/Jacuzzi space is a short row of private rooms. I suspect these rooms must be the most expensive, ones with the largest, comfiest beds and other perks. I haven’t seen anyone enter or exit these doors. I wonder if I’ll ever be invited into one.
There are a couple guys in the small gym area working out. One of them is heaving a barbell naked. Light fur covers his chest and legs—a muscular cub, if I had to choose a label. Based on previous interactions with the same kind of guy, I’m willing to bet my life that I’m not his type, so I move on, trying to ignore feeling bummed out. Close by, there’s the clanging of lockers, unzipping of zippers, unbuckling of belts before they knock on benches, shoes scuffing the floor as they’re kicked off. I poke my head in to see the new arrivals, feeling a thrill run through me like a lit fuse. When I realize what I’m doing—being a creepy voyeur, like the other men—I have to leave.
A few paces away, concealed by a curtain, is what resembles a black, glory hole–type structure that I don’t go near—it looks sketchy. Some men lounge in leather seats, ogling those who walk by. Next to the stairs, two wooden picnic tables are opposite a large, high-definition flat-screen TV, but no one is watching. Freddy and his co-workers are laughing and joking amongst themselves and other half-covered men nearby. A stout, hairy man with a belly peruses his options of anal douches and hoses in a vending machine. Receding hairlines and wrinkles suggest the average age in here is maybe midforties. Everything feels so bizarre, like an alternate dimension that operates on its own rules, its own logic. Should I relate to all this because I’m gay? But there’s nothing here I can identify with, aside from the commonality of also having sex with men. It all makes me doubt again the reason for my presence.
There’s not much else I feel I can do, or at least no one I want do it with, so I return to the steam room—to the sound of moaning. A larger man is sitting down, his towel splayed open below him on the bench. On his knees in front is a smaller guy. I take a seat across from them and watch, getting turned on. After a few moments, the older man abruptly leans over and whispers some muffled words to his servicer, grabs his towel, and exits. I expect the younger guy to follow him, but he only stands up and watches the glass door close. It takes him a few seconds before he notices me.
He steps over and, without hesitation, touches my chest, my back, down to my crotch. The sweat on his fingers makes them feel slimy as he slides his palm all over my skin. It’s not really what I want, but it’s not completely awful either. Situations like this don’t happen to me, and not knowing what to do, I sit there and caress his damp skin a bit. When our eyes meet, I see he’s young, perhaps younger than my twenty-five years. Suddenly, I can’t help but think of him as someone’s child. You shouldn’t be here, I tell him telepathically.
Instead, he kneels again and resumes where he left off. It feels fine—it’s clear he knows what he’s doing—yet there seems to be something missing.
I feel him on me, but nothing else. No magical spark, no passion. An empty intimate act. I find myself averting my eyes from him—towards the benches across, the ceiling melting and dripping water, anything. My soul cries out for something else, but my pulse drowns it out by drumming in my ears. I swallow hard. It takes me minutes as the question struggles until it finally clobbers its way out of my mouth.
“When was the last time you were tested?” It feels strange and almost taboo to break the silence, like I’ve violated a law. My voice sounds dubbed over by someone else.
“Last month. You?”
“Oh, okay. Me too.”
I nod out of nervousness, a habit, and he mistakes it as his cue to carry on. The nothingness returns. You don’t have to do this. Can we just talk for a bit instead? But the words are too strong, too big to force out. So I endure him as well as the discomfort. After a while, he stands up, presenting me with his hard dick.
“Suck it,” he whispers. I take his cock—slippery from sweat, steam, and pre-cum—and tug on it, trying to buy myself some time while I get acquainted with it. He probably senses my hesitation because he adds, “Just a little. Please.”
It would be kind of rude to say no, since he did the same for me. At the same time, maybe it’s how moist it is, but his dick isn’t very appealing. Just a little, I think, before I take him in my mouth. I battle the urge to retch.
While this goes on, more and more guys enter the room and loiter. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them hovering; some just leer, while others touch themselves as they watch this impromptu porno I didn’t mean to star in, which only intensifies my emptiness and makes me feel dirty. He must sense them too because he rises, leans over, and whispers into my ear.
“Let’s get out of here.”
With that, he takes my hand and leads me out of the steam; I’m aware of the heads and eyes trailing us as we vacate the room, relieved to be rid of the audience. We bypass the showers and approach the glory-hole booth. When he goes in, I hesitate. I have zero interest in getting off in a glory hole. And what’s the point? I’ve already seen what he looks like.
But as I draw back the curtain, I’m surprised to see ascending stairs. Following him up the creaky, narrow, wooden staircase, we reach an enclosed area with a raised platform. Even with my glasses on, everything, including our white towels, is shades of black. He pulls me to him and forces his tongue into my mouth. As a reflex, my tongue retreats inside my mouth, and I wonder if he can tell I don’t really want to kiss him. If he knows, he ignores it. When we break, again, he kneels. This is supposed to be enjoyable, so why am I not enjoying it? I should try. I close my eyes and tell myself that it’s good, it’s good.
Nearby, the wooden stairs groan. A shadowed head peers out from behind the wall and watches us. He shuffles over, touching himself, his hard dick swinging in front of the young guy on his knees, who gobbles it up as well. This man appears to be older and instinctively, I want to shrink away from him.
His tongue glides across my throat. I twist my neck away from his slobbering mouth, hoping he will receive the signal not to move higher. When he touches my skin, I flinch so hard I nearly jump: his hands are so smooth, it’s as if there are no lines or creases in them, like he’s rubbing me with heated mittens. Like he isn’t human.
“I want you to fuck me.” The younger guy is on his feet again, his breath on my ear causing an involuntary shudder throughout my body. Possible answers spin around like a game-show wheel: I don’t; Can we keep doing this instead?; How about this guy fucks you instead?; Are you sure you don’t want us to get to know each other a bit first? After a few seconds, I manage to choke out the most appropriate response I can think of. “Let’s go find a condom.”
He withdraws and yanks his towel off the platform. For a moment, it seems like things are off. Then, he leans in again and replies, “I’ll go get one. Wait here for me.” He wanders down the rickety stairway.
I hope the man with velvet hands will leave too, but instead he manoeuvres himself behind me; while he handles me and grinds his dick against my ass, growling “Oh yeahhh,” I am a cadaver, wide-eyed, paralyzed, and mute. I can’t help but think back to a poster above the urinals at university, educating students about consent with a list of points. One of them was that “consent is a freely given and enthusiastic yes!” So this is what it must feel like to be sexually assaulted. Should I be traumatized? I feel … nothing.
Eventually, he must get bored of me stiffly standing there and surrenders. Alone in the silence, I sigh. For the first time since I’ve arrived, I feel comfortable and calm in the solitude, and I spend these moments collecting myself. That was a pretty awful experience, but this young guy doesn’t seem half bad, even if I’m not completely into what he’s doing. Maybe if I keep doing things with him, the nothingness will transform into somethingness. Yes, that must happen.
As I wait for him to return, a few others stumble into my hideaway. One has an African accent and purrs, “Come with me. I have a room,” to which I announce, with confidence for once, “I’m waiting for someone.”
To kill time, I examine my surroundings. I notice a hole under the platform, large enough to fit my face; the hues inside are lighter than the dark where I am, indicative of a different room. It turns out to be a massive, dark play space of sorts, in which there are nooks and corners in jagged shapes and no clear path through. Shadows occasionally drift in and out, almost floating by. They slow as they come close to other dark shapes, but there is never any contact. They come in alone, they leave alone.
It takes about ten minutes of pacing in the dark before I spot a glimmer of something on top of the black-painted platform.
A condom. Still sealed in the packaging.
Did he see it? Surely, condoms aren’t that hard to obtain here; the front desk probably has tons, and it’s only down the hall. Maybe he was offended I wanted to use a condom and instead found somebody else. In any case, if he got a rubber, he should be back by now.
With another sigh, I gather my towel and descend. I don’t find him on the main level, which means either he’s left or he is downstairs.
The bottom floor is a web of two main corridors, with shorter paths abruptly jutting out from them at sharp angles. I think back to my first time and the disorientation I experienced, like being in a labyrinth. Private rooms line these hallways, lit in a red, hellish haze. Past that is a completely pitch-black area. Needless to say, I’m not particularly excited to wander down there again. At least you know your way around this time, I assure myself with every cautious step down the vinyl, non-slip stairs.
The first thing I see is a mirror and sink area. I turn away from the mirror. Another out-of-place dance song blasts on the speakers above as I join other non-dancing men shuffling around barefoot on the carpeted floor, doing my best to blend in. Eyes meet other eyes, hands find skin occasionally. Men pose by the doors of their rooms, trying to balance interest and casualness, taking in everyone who strolls by in an attempt to lure others into their caves. A few doors I pass are open: inside, some men are un-toweled and masturbating; others have blue faces, illuminated by a hanging television in the corner. Others are simply lying there with their asses or legs up in the air, poised and ready to be taken. Maybe it’s from having watched all sorts of gay porn for years or simply that I’m not shocked easily, but none of what I see fazes me. Some of it is a little unexpected, but this is gay life, after all. And for tonight, I am a visitor.
I spy the young guy after a lap around the maze and call out from behind. He turns and barely glances at me as we briefly make eye contact. Then he turns back and continues down the hall in the opposite direction. I stand there, dumbfounded and hurt, and not knowing what else to do, I begin walking too. Why make a big deal out of something—someone—as trivial as a hookup? Guys fuck and leave. That’s the way they do things. They’d laugh at me for being emotional, for being a girl. I should at least pretend it meant nothing.
In one room, a young, handsome man lies on the bed, facing the door. After passing by at least four times, I vow to go in and say hi, chat with him a bit. He looks like he wants to talk to someone.
When I find his room again, I linger by the doorway. Our eyes lock, and I watch him jerk off for a few seconds. Taking this as a good sign, I cautiously take a step inside.
“No, sorry,” he blurts. Immediately, I withdraw.
“Oh. No problem.” I add a laugh so he’ll think it’s just a casual misunderstanding, all in good fun, before I depart.
Another guy is sitting on a bench against a wall, watching men in suits having sex on TV. I wonder if he’s resigned and jaded like me when it comes to talking with guys. Again, I have to talk myself up before taking a seat next to him. He doesn’t look over. When I say hi, he responds with silence, seemingly rapt, transfixed by what will happen next in the film. I sit there for a few seconds, letting the rejection sting and sink in like a needle in my arm before getting up.
The few men whom I actually want to do something with look right past me as we pass each other in the hallways. There is one standing in a corner whom I stroll by several times. I want to go up to him, but the last encounters have made me nervous about getting rebuffed again. After all, this guy is good-looking and white, and I’ve been rejected by good-looking white guys ever since I started dating. Every time I walk past the guy in the corner, I long for him to notice me, but his eyes are always elsewhere, looking through my chest, past my head. Finally, he’s just gone. It shouldn’t make sense to feel disappointment about a stranger. And yet in my head, it’s another opportunity out the window, hope dissolved.
I assume he’s in the other part of the floor, past the violet-tinted urinals and showers, in the black area. There, no one sees one another as they either watch or take turns servicing a row of men lined up against metal prison bars, or stuff themselves inside confined, tight stalls. Everyone is the same: faceless silhouettes. Last time, I was puzzled by how everyone was able to be turned on by someone they couldn’t see; I guess it could be thrilling, though.
The sound of moaning emanates even before I’ve entered. I inch past a beefy guy with big pecs positioned just outside the prison, observing what appears to be a shapeless black monster of disproportionate appendages writhing and pleasuring itself. Our skin grazes each other’s, and instead of continuing on, I park myself a couple feet away from him. Since it’s too dark to see anything happening near the prison bars, I turn my attention to him by tentatively reaching out and touching his chest. His shorter height and smooth skin are like those of a younger jock-type guy, and when he touches me back, a wave of excitement travels outwards from his hand. Someone I like seems to like me too! I can’t see his face, but it seems only logical a hot body matches a hot guy.
We feel each other up for a while before he walks towards the exit. I take the hint to follow him as we breach incandescent light once again and my vision returns. His chest and body are exactly what I felt: muscular, taut. But when I look further up, there are lines on his face; his eyes seem weathered. He looks at least forty. The possibility that he might be twice my age is a thought I try not to dwell on. I almost wish we had just stayed cloaked in the dark.
Just as I begin coming up with polite excuses to go, he asks, “Do you want to go back to my room?”
“Uh, sure,” I lie for some reason.
As he fumbles to open the door to his room in the faint light, I notice everyone’s gazes on us. I want to tell them, No, we’re not hooking up! I don’t even find him that attractive. And I don’t know why I’m going in with him! Once inside, he lies down on the small cot that almost fills the entire cramped room and gestures for me to join him. Suddenly aware of the situation—he wants to have sex with me and I don’t want to, but I’m now locked in a room with him—I merely sit on my heels next to him, unmoving, like I’ve been turned to stone.
“You’re really cute. Sexy,” he tells me. I thank him and reply that I’m nervous.
“You didn’t seem nervous in there, touching me and licking my chest,” he says with a chuckle. I don’t chuckle back. I thought you were someone else, I want to say. Instead, I ask for the time. He turns on the television and flips through multiple channels, all porn. Apparently, there isn’t anything else besides that.
“I’d say probably around one?”
I nod. “I don’t live downtown, so I have to make sure I can still get home.”
“I see. It’s good to make sure you can get home.” I don’t know what to say, so I nod again.
“You’re very sexy,” he repeats, his smile stretching into a Cheshire cat’s grin.
A few moments pass. “I, um, I think I should go. I’m sorry.”
He gets up from the bed. “No, no, it’s fine.” I’m glad he doesn’t make a big deal of it or call me out as leading him on or anything. We put our respective towels around us again, and he opens the door. I step out and turn around, about to wish him goodbye, only to find his back to me as he returns to the shadow-prison.
As I walk away, I think about the men who freely touched my skin, the same skin I declared years ago I would only allow those who meant something to me to touch, and I shiver. I glance down at my own skin, expecting to see the claw marks of strangers’ fingers, strangers I could barely even see. I wonder again why I’m here in the middle of the night, how I came to this moment, and I know I need to go. I don’t belong here.
My pace quickens as I navigate the tangled passages, trying to find my way out of the labyrinth. When I glance up at the men, their eyes are dark holes, their faces blank and sagging, living Scream paintings. I’m not like them, I’m not like them, I repeat to myself as I find the stairs and take them two at a time.
Back on the main level, I finally notice the hypnotic, minimalist music. It has a repetitive beat—sa-la-ciousss … sa-la-ciousss … evidently the only lyric to the song. The singer coos the words like a siren, his voice practically dripping with sex and sweat as he alternates between first major, then minor chords in the one word—a musical descent into hell. Everything—including now the music—seems to be urging me to stay, which only exacerbates my need to flee and the disgust for myself.
I want to leave, but my dick doesn’t unless I finish it off. Since I don’t have a private room and don’t know where else to get off, I opt for the showers, ignoring their openness. There’s only one other person here and he doesn’t even so much as glance over, which makes it all the easier. I hover in front of the motion sensor, recoiling at the sudden burn and the pressurized spray. Near the ceiling are six television screens playing six different porn films of men having hot, passionate sex. Nothing I’ve seen tonight resembled any of them. Maybe nothing ever will for me.
I look back down to the men adjacent to the steam-room door as they ogle one another with lust. They all seem so confident, like they know what they’re doing, and yet now all they seem like are lost, desperate souls limping around, entering doors as if trying to find the right one that will lead them to an afterlife.
And I start to question if I’m destined to become one of these men years from now—a straggling soul, lonely and moaning for consolation, for connection. I see myself wandering these cursed hallways, a now-permanent pocket of a hole in my chest, my face worn and tired like those around me. To think I ever wanted to leave, I might think, as I let an older man fondle me in the black.
No, there’s no way that could happen. You still have a soul, and you can still save it. But before I can finish the thought, the shower suddenly shuts off, as if it sensed there wasn’t a soul there at all.
Aaron Chan is from Vancouver, Canada, and is a recent graduate of the Creative Writing Program at UBC. His writing has been published in the anthologies Best Gay Romance 2012 and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times for Teens, as well as in Wilde, Ricepaper, and Existere. His memoir piece, “A Case of Jeff”, won subTerrain‘s Lush Triumphant Literary Award in 2013. Currently, Aaron is in the process of working on a memoir, and also likes cats and cheesecake. To stalk him further, check out www.theaaronchan.com.